FREEPORT, Maine — Burnett Road near Freeport, with its potholes, swales and an assortment of pebble- to goose-size stones, is a bumpy ride at best.
It’s also the main access road to the Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment.
Metaphorically speaking, Burnett Road is a cakewalk when compared with the real-life obstacles facing new dairy farmers, a fact that prompted Wisconsin dairy farmer Joe Tomandl III to create the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship program in 2010.
Under Tomandl, the program became the first U.S. Department of Labor-accredited national farming apprentice program in history.
Tomandl also knew that a shortage of dairy farmers was underway at the time. So he decided to find ways to help new dairy farmers obtain training, guidance and assistance in facing the hurdles with starting a new dairy business.
Sarah Littlefield, dairy director for the 626-acre Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment, established and supervises a two-year apprenticeship program where graduates become dairy farmers.
At Wolfe’s Neck farm, cows are rotated through grazing paddocks of high-quality grasses, allowing unused paddocks to recover and regrow, Littlefield said.
Once cows move to the next grazing area, chickens, a henhouse and a movable fence set up shop.
While the history of the land spans 250 years, the farm as its known today began in 1947 when Eleanor and Lawrence M.C. Smith of Philadelphia purchased the property.
The farm takes its name from Henry and Rachel Woolfe, European colonists who established a homestead on the narrow peninsula that sits between Casco Bay and the Harraseeket River, southeast of Freeport.
In 1949, Eleanor Smith joined the Cumberland County Soil Conservation District, triggering the couple’s future plans for the farm.
The farm started in the late 1960s.
“Three years ago, Wolfe’s Neck Farm started their dairy program. Two years ago, I received a phone call from a colleague/friend at Stonyfield asking whether I’d be willing to look at the project here and advise Ben Jensen, the farm manager, and Matthew DeGrandpre, the herd and operations manager, as they started their adventure in dairy here. Matthew is the third generation to help run the farm,” Littlefield said.
A short time later, Littlefield accepted an offer to work on the farm full time.
There were some dairy cattle on the farm when Littlefield came, but dairy infrastructure was nonexistent.
A beef barn, built in the 1970s, was used to house the dairy herd, and farmhands utilized a portable vacuum pump and bucket for milking.
Today, the herd of 40 cows are milked twice a day in a modern dairy parlor.
The Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship has a rolling admissions program with six openings at a time.
Last month there were five apprentices from Oregon, Virginia, New York, Missouri and Maine. Apprentices are paid and live in a farmhouse on-site. They spend more than 3,000 hours working on the farm and another 300-plus hours in related classroom studies.
Abagial “Abbi” Smith, 22, of Durham just finished her seventh month as an apprentice. A 2013 graduate of Freeport High School, she earned an associate’s degree in 2016 from Kennebec Valley Community College’s sustainable agriculture program.
While completing the apprenticeship program, she is also bringing life back to a 27-acre Auburn farm, half of which is forest formerly owned by her grandfather.
“I really want to diversify what I know,” said Smith, whose previous farming experience was limited to sheep and beef. “I’d like to have a diversified farm of my own at some point, possibly having a dairy aspect. By using sustainable agriculture, I’m not wasting those resources and I’m not running myself into the ground and I’ll be helping my community in some way.”
While Smith expects to develop some component of organic farming, she is not sure if she will do a 100-percent organic farming operation. She does want the majority of her farm to be pasture based.
Mexico, Missouri, native Josh Harlan, 23, who has been at Wolfe’s Neck for 11 months, grew up on a 300-acre conventional beef farm. A year ago, his uncle sold the family farm. About the same time, Harlan moved to Maine to participate in a six-month beef internship program at Aldermere Farm in Rockport.
“The beef cattle brought me to Maine and the dairy cattle kept me,” said Harlan, who holds a bachelor’s degree in agribusiness/animal science from Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau. “Aldermere Farm is one of the oldest Belted Galloway cattle breeders in the country. I’m hoping to find another DGA master in Maine who will take me on. I know I want to have a diversified farm, but I don’t know what my specialty will be — beef or dairy and some sheep.”
About five weeks ago in the nearby community of New Vineyard, a dairy farmer, Randall Bates, was seriously injured by an uncooperative 1,400-pound cow.
Jill, Randall Bates’ wife, knew she would not be able to run the farm while her husband recovered, so she called friends for help.
Among the people she contacted was Richard Kersbergen, the education coordinator for the apprenticeship program at Wolfe’s Neck and a professor of sustainable dairy and forage systems with University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
Kersbergen called Littlefield and the call for volunteers went out to the dairy apprentices.
Within three days of Randall’s accident, Harlan began helping on the farm. He spent 10 days on the 544-acre Springside Farm before leaving on a previously scheduled trip.
For more information on the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship at Wolfe’s Neck, visit www.wolfesneck.org.